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Fiji coup leader sacks chiefs

Published: 8:03PM Thursday April 12, 2007 Source: Reuters

Fiji's military coup leader Frank Bainimarama sacked the nation's Great Council of Chiefs on Thursday and suspended all future meetings, dramatically increasing political tensions in the Pacific islands nation.

Bainimarama's move came after an ongoing standoff with the nation's council of traditional chiefs, who refused to endorse the military commander's government and his nomination for vice president following the country's fourth coup in 20 years.

Bainimarama accused the chiefs of meddling in politics, and said they had made decisions that were were not in the best interests of the people of Fiji.

"They now constitute a security threat in our efforts to lead the country forward," Bainimarama told a media conference in Suva broadcast on Fiji radio.

He added that the government no longer recognised the council's membership.

Under the 1997 constitution, the great council of chiefs - the paramount assembly of traditional chiefs - has the power to appoint the nation's president. It meets once a year to discuss matters of concern to the people of Fiji.

Bainimarama toppled elected Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase in a bloodless coup on December 5, 2006, claiming Qarase's largely indigenous government was corrupt and too soft on those responsible for a previous coup in 2000.

Bainimarama took over executive authority from President Ratu Josefa Iloilo in the days after his coup, dissolving parliament, declaring a state of emergency.

The military strongman then reinstated the ageing and ailing Iloilo as president, named himself interim prime minister, and appointed Ratu Epeli Nailatikau as interim foreign minister.

Bainimarama, who has said he would allow elections in 2010, had wanted Nailatikau to be the country's new Vice President, an important role given Iloilo's is in his 80s and in poor health.

But the chiefs rejected the nomination because Nailatikau is associated with what they say is an illegal government.

Bainimarama and Iloilo boycotted Thursday's meeting of the Great Council of Chiefs in protest, before later announcing his decision to suspend the council and scrap its funding.

"There are also strong indications that the council has now become a forum for serving political agendas which may be detrimental to the interim government's efforts to move the country forward," he said.

He said the chiefs had stopped being impartial and had betrayed the trust of the people of Fiji.

Tension between Bainimarama and the paramount chiefs has simmered since the chiefs condemned the December coup, with Bainimarama telling them in return to have a picnic and drink under a mango tree and to take their grievances to Santa Claus.

Bainimarama's December coup drew international condemnation, with Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States imposing economic, diplomatic and defence sanctions.

A former British colony, Fiji had its Commonwealth membership suspended in protest at the coup, just as it did after two similar upheavals in 1987 and again in 2000.